Homily for the Solemnity of the Lord’s Ascension

This is a beautiful feast, a mysteriously joyful one, a feast to die on (St Bede died on its eve) and a feast to live from. In an old reckoning, tt is, with Christmas and Epiphany and Easter one of the four “cardinal” feasts of the Church’s year.

The Lord speaks his last words to the disciples, takes them up the hill of Bethany, withdraws from them, is taken up into the air and hidden by a cloud. And he has gone. This is St Luke’s account, and it’s to be read as the .“outward sign perceptible to the senses”, a “sacrament” of something momentous. This not Voyager 1 or Christ the pioneer of interstellar travel. It is the Lord going to his Father’s house to prepare us a place. It’s “the irreversible entry of his humanity into divine glory”, “into God’s heavenly domain” (CCC 659,665). It’s the completion of the mission that began when “he came down from heaven” at his Incarnation. He has reversed the closing of paradise after sin and opened heaven to us. He ascends to his Father and our Father, to his God and our God (cf. Jn 20:17). The angels acclaim him as he mounts to his heavenly throne at the right hand of the Father. He is “given as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:22-23).

To us he remains unseen, or better visible only to the eyes of faith, and human beings are still free to block him. But let’s consider Jesus in himself? Now he is fully everything he already was. He is now “constituted Son of God in power” (Rom 1:4). His humanity has become wholly transparent to his divinity; the communion of his two natures is complete. What happened briefly at his Transfiguration is now his eternal condition. Henceforth, he is the Messiah without any qualification. Everything he was in embryo in his mother’s womb, everything he was in weakness on the Cross, he is now in an unrestricted, maximised, glorified way. He is fully free. The gift of himself he made on the Cross and that was recognised by the Father in his resurrection, is now, so to speak, “on public release” and is lavished everywhere. Think of the freedom and power and divine ingenuity that make the Eucharist possible! He is like the Lover in the Song of Songs: “Behold he comes, leaping over the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag” (Sg 2:8-9). Or again, he is capable of stealing up on us, working on us imperceptibly, slipping through crevices, outwitting our resistances – it is St Edith Stein who says all this. A man on his deathbed unexpectedly asked for baptism. When his astonished (and delighted) daughter asked him why, he replied in the words of Paul Macartney’s song: “Ah, ‘she came in through the bathroom window’”. She the Holy Spirit; she the ascended Christ…

And because he is so free, we can be free too. His freedom, like everything else he has, is for us. He is no longer limited by time and space, not limited to thirty-three years in time or to Galilee and Judea, not restricted to the people or things around him. And therefore he is able to reach every time and every place, every person, every thing.

St Paul, in the second reading, plucks a phrase from Ps 67, to try and sum this up. “When he ascended on high, he took captivity captive; he gave gifts to men.” He “has taken captivity captive”. He has made us free. And “he gives gifts”, that is, he loves so we can love.

St Paul wrote this from prison, by the way. His connection to Christ took his own captivity captive; he knew that, however imprisoned, he was a free man. We need no reminding, especially as we age, how limited we are, by time and space, by our bodies and minds, by our social circumstances, by the world and all the rest. And we know how these things can become prisons: a medical condition, a mental illness, growing old, obligations to or oppression by others. We remember the camps and the gulags, and the forms of modern slavery. We can feel trapped. But the Lord’s Ascension has the power to take these captivities captive, Christ can enter them and we transcend them. We are more than what confines us. The confines do not define us, cannot claim to be all we are, should not usurp the narrative we have. Finite and confined we may be, but our souls are capable of heaven. Christ has opened us up.

For this, with the angels, we praise and thank and worship him. Amen.

St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 9 May 2024


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